According to the recent Australian Universities Accord Panel Discussion Paper, providing quality teaching that leads to quality learning is the primary challenge and opportunity in higher education. OES Academic Learning and Development Manager, Lindsay Watters has more than a decade’s experience recruiting, upskilling, and supporting online university tutors to provide exceptional learning experiences for students. He identifies six key pillars for universities to realise high quality online teaching.
1. Provide genuine support for students
Lindsay says the best online teachers are truly passionate about student success.
“They demonstrate a strong online ‘instructor presence’. They are active and visible in the learning space daily, so that students are – and more importantly feel – supported,” he says.
Top online teachers and tutors are also proactive in their role of supporting students, rather than reactive, which is an important distinction, Lindsay says.
“In online environments, it’s not enough to simply respond to student questions. Teachers and tutors need to be proactively engaging with students, prompting them, checking understanding, fostering discussion and encouraging deeper thinking.”
2. Recruit the right people
OES’s analytics reveal that quality online teaching makes a big difference to student engagement. A high-performing teaching or tutoring team will reflect a combination of personal connection, discipline expertise and industry experience.
“The best online teachers aren’t just subject matter experts, they are also good at building rapport within online environments. They are adept at facilitating conversations and encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to actively participate,” he says.
“We recruit online tutors who love to teach and to forge relationships based on the co-creation of knowledge. It’s these qualities above all others, that help realise the positive student engagement metrics and results that our program partners are seeking.”
“We receive regular feedback from students reporting high levels of satisfaction with their online experience. Our partners’ QILT survey data points to higher than national average scores for teaching quality, student support, learning resources and overall experience.”
3. Build outstanding online course content
Underpinning high quality teaching is course content expertly tailored for an online context.
“Course materials for online students should be highly interactive,” Lindsay explains. “As much of the online student experience involves asynchronous learning, content must be accessible, engaging and, importantly, broken into highly consumable chunks.”
Lindsay says experienced learning designers should work with on-campus academics to translate content for online students. Diverse formats (video, infographics, animations, quizzes) and interactive tools (discussion boards, chat spaces) should be leveraged to convey complex topics and ideas.
“This work represents the vital foundation of any successful online program. It provides online tutors with a robust base from which they can further build and enhance student learning and understanding.”
4. Teach to the unique needs of online cohorts
Whether they are undertaking a bachelor’s degree, postgraduate program or short course, the typical online university student already has multiple commitments. They may be working full- or part-time and have caring responsibilities outside of work and study.
“High quality online teaching caters to the needs of busy students by being broken into units of work that can be completed in a lunchbreak, or after putting the kids to bed,” Lindsay says.
“Online students may also be the first in their family to go to university,” he adds. “Scaffolding content and language are essential tactics for students who may not have parental or peer higher education experiences to draw on.”
“Effective online teachers and tutors get to know their students and help them succeed within the context of their unique circumstances.”
5. Provide rigorous training and reduce admin
“The best online tutors have been comprehensively trained to ensure they have the skills and knowledge to facilitate and extend discussion specifically within online environments,” Lindsay says.
“Ongoing support for online tutors is also highly important. At OES, our Unit Coordinators provide regular coaching and feedback, with a focus on student engagement and assessment.”
Lindsay says loading online tutors up with administrative tasks takes them away from time engaging directly with students.
“Instead, implement effective systems and processes to reduce admin tasks that don’t add value. Our fantastic Student Advisors (SAs) provide support to students which complements the guidance of online tutors. While online tutors focus on building understanding of course content, SAs specialise in supporting students with administrative and other queries.”
6. Assessment matters
Lindsay says it’s important to get assessment right in online programs and courses.
“Marking and feedback are priority touchpoints for students and represent key opportunities to guide and influence their practice.”
“High quality online tutors see feedback and assessment through the eyes of the online student. They compose constructive, positive, supportive, educative feedback that focuses on what can be improved, not solely what the student got wrong.”
From a quality assurance and compliance perspective, online units and courses need to be equivalent to those delivered on campus.
“At OES we strive towards the highest standards of quality in both teaching and assessment. These are critical elements of our service delivery. From regular calibration between online and on-campus assessments to close engagement with on-campus academics, our online teachers and wider team use a range of proven strategies to ensure the integrity of the learning and assessment process.”